Philosophy in Seattle

I feel like I should live in Seattle. Of course I have only had the opportunity to visit the city once (for a total of five days); but still my gut feeling is that Seattle is the place for me. It is a city that seems to offer a mixture of culture, entertainment and recreation perfectly suited to my own way of life. It is a large urban center, but it does not feel hectic. Despite its many skyscrapers and city streets, it sits amidst the wilderness and mountains. Seattle is situated next to the water, and so there is plentiful seafood. There are numerous punk rock bars and clubs, more coffee shops than I could visit in a year, and tons of bookstores that cater to my own particular tastes. After one five day visit, I’m hooked and I’ve become convinced that I am destined to live there.

I have, of course, had this same reaction to a host of other cities that I have visited for short periods. It’s probably true that if I did find myself living in Seattle, I would also find plenty to complain about over the course of time, just as I find plenty to complain about here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Perhaps it is just the novelty of seeing something different that is the source of my Seattle-mania.

In any case, it was on the occasion of the 86th annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association that I was recently in the emerald city. I had volunteered to act as chair for a session on scientific modeling, and so my wife and I planned a short get away around this event. This year’s APA conference was held at the Westin Hotel, which is right in the heart of downtown. We arrived late in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and we were amazed to find so little traffic in the middle of this booming metropolis. There was no stop and go crunch, no impatient honking motorists; just smooth, uncomplicated driving to our destination. One of the negative things I now remember is the price of parking. It was ridiculously expensive. OK, so not everything is perfect in Seattle.

I often find myself getting anxious at conferences, and particularly at the APA conference. In the past, my anxiety and tension have become so pronounced that I have felt like I just wanted to run away to my room and go to sleep. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the APA has a tradition of being skewed toward a particular perspective in philosophy, and as the largest association of philosophers in the US, the atmosphere at its meetings often feels very formalized and stiff. Job interviews are conducted at these conferences as well, and so there are a lot of graduate students and job seekers who are on their “best” behavior, seeking to impress those who hold the keys to the academic kingdom. As I was waiting to get coffee in the Hotel lobby one morning, I overheard a couple of older gentlemen complaining about this very thing. “This is a conference for young people,” one of the men complained. “It’s not for the rest of us who already have jobs.”

During the Seattle meeting, however, I felt more at ease than usual. For one, I’m not out to please or impress anyone anymore. I have a job that I’m happy with and that I will probably keep for the rest of my life. No one really knows or cares who I am, so I can just hang back and enjoy the show, so to speak.

Additionally, it was a pleasant surprise to find that at this particular meeting there were actually quite a few sessions that appealed to me. There were, indeed, so many interesting talks that I was unable to attend all of the ones that I had dog-eared in my conference program. Because of this unusual abundance, I missed a special memorial session devoted to one of my own former teachers, Mary Anne Warren, as well as sessions devoted to Nietzsche, Hiedegger and Hegel. This, in my experience, is out of the ordinary, and it is an indication that the APA is trying to reach out to a greater diversity of philosophers by scheduling sessions on topics outside of the usual, mainstream, analytic fare. In any case, it was a welcome, if somewhat frustrating, situation to have to choose between a number of equally compelling symposia and colloquia.

My dissertation advisor, Carolyn Korsmeyer, was the subject of an especially interesting “author-meets-critics” session that focused on her new book, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. During this session, Korsmeyer and her critics, Mitchell Green and Alex Neill, argued about the “paradox of disgust,” which involves the puzzle of how it is possible to aesthetically appreciate and enjoy artworks that depict disgusting objects. Korsmeyer’s position holds that aesthetic disgust (such as that enjoyed when watching zombie movies, or when viewing paintings of body parts and decaying organisms) is a legitimate aesthetic experience that is attractive because it reminds us of our own finitude. Disgusting art provokes us to think about our own fate as embodied, mortal organisms that will one day die and whose bodies will decay and rot. This is the existential value of disgusting art: it puts us in touch with the truth of human mortality.

Later, I chaired a session at which Alistair Issac presented a paper titled, “Modeling Without Representation.” David Stump served as the commentator. In his paper Issac argues for a pragmatic perspective on scientific models, claiming that there is no necessary conflict between this approach and the retention of a realist perspective when it comes to scientific theories. The conundrum here centers on the fact that many scientific models that really do work, pragmatically, in order to generate interesting and testable hypotheses are premised on assumptions about the world that are themselves actually false. From a realist perspective, which holds that theories and models are legitimate only if they are based on true assumptions, this is unacceptable. Issac’s view is that we can be pragmatic when it comes to models, but still strive toward refining our theories in line with a realist perspective. The model is merely a tool while the theory is a purported depiction of the actual causal structure of the world. The model should not be confused with the thing being modeled.

The final, and perhaps most fascinating, of all the sessions I attended was titled “Much Ado about Nothing: Conceptions of Nothingness in Asian Philosophy.” In this session, Jay Garfield discussed the Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, arguing that they are best characterized as realists and not as nihilists. Bo Wang discussed the relation between Taoism and nothingness, and JeeLoo Liu ended the session by addressing the role of nothingness in Taoism and Confucianism. The consistent theme running throughout these presentations was the idea that Asian philosophy avoids the puzzle of how something can come out of nothing.  Since in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (unlike in the Abrahamic traditions) the universe has no beginning in time, there is for them no such thing as creation ex nihilo. The universe has always existed, and so there is no requirement to explain how it came into being. My only disappointment with this session was that Curtis Rigsby, who was scheduled to read his paper titled “The Kyoto School on Nothingness: Japan’s Philosophical Response to the West,” was a no-show. I am fascinated with the Kyoto School and its engagement with the idea of nihilism, and so I’m sorry that Rigsby was not able to be present.

At the beginning of the session on nothingness in Asian philosophy, Jay Garfield made a humorous, and telling, remark about the inclusion of this topic in the APA program. He joked that we were experiencing a monumental occasion; one that was unprecedented in the history of this organization. It was amazing, he laughed, that the APA had finally recognized the contributions of non-Western thinkers to the field of philosophy! While he was certainly joking, and being a bit hyperbolic, his point was one that resonated with me, and I was relieved that someone else was thinking the same thing that I was thinking. It is a welcome shift to see the APA becoming more inclusive with the sorts of topics that are addressed at its conferences. It is only in this way that the organization can remain relevant and attractive to those of us working in philosophy. I can honestly say that I now look forward to future meetings as a result.

Outside of the official proceedings, it was wonderful to touch base with some of my past advisors and current colleagues who were present at the conference. It was also great to see the sights. As I noted above, Seattle is an amazing city with plenty of things to keep you occupied. My wife and I visited the usual tourist destinations (The Public Market, The Space Needle) as well as some great bookstores (Left Bank Books, The Elliot Bay Book Company). The culinary highlights were eating at Cafe Flora, a vegetarian restaurant that serves an incredibly delicious portobello wellington, and having salted caramel ice cream at Molly Moon’s. Our visit was nicely rounded off with a ferry ride to Victoria, Canada , and a day hike in Mt. Rainer National Park.

I’m looking forward to living in Seattle some day so that I can eventually become sick of it all; just like the members of the Feederz, one of my favorite punk bands. Listen to their song “No Shopping” for a more hostile view of Seattle and what it has to offer!

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